By Rabbi Chaim Bruk

By R’ Chaim Bruk

Last Friday, a construction worker who lives ten miles south of Big Sky drove the 65 miles to our shul in Bozeman to chat with me about Torah.

You see, Chad spent his entire childhood and most of his adult life immersed in Christianity. His dad was a pastor, and he accepted it all blindly. Only now, in his late forties, did he start realizing that he’s missing so much context, history, and depth that exist only in Torah and its preeminent commentators. He isn’t necessarily looking to reject his Christian faith, but he’s definitely seeking to reject a lot of Christian theology and doctrine that he finds to be untrue and contradictory.

I gifted him a Stone edition and Kehot edition of the Chumash, and I hope it will help him see things from a truthful angle going forward. He’s not seeking to convert, and I am certainly not seeking to send him down that path, but between idolatry and Judaism, there is a beautiful middle path of a Noachide, following the seven universal laws given to all of humankind, which I hope he will find meaningful and share with his fellow gentiles.

Interestingly, his biggest questions weren’t about the Jewish faith, Torah theology, or monotheism versus the trinity; his biggest questions were about what he read in Parashas Terumah regarding the measurements of the Mishkan, the Holy Tabernacle, and the artifacts in it. He needed to understand cubits, the size of the Holy Ark, the rounded versus angled Menorah (which has finally been rectified by the drawing of the Rambam in which the Menorah had diagonal branches), and so on. He really wanted to know if there was significance to the numbers themselves. “Rabbi, is it just a number for practical measurement, or is there something deeper in the number?”

A wise man seeking more wisdom.

I explained to him that in Jewish mysticism there are explanations for many of these numbered measurements and their numerical significance, but that first and foremost, he must delve into understanding the basics of how the Mishkan was built, the miracle of the Aron, the Holy Ark, not being measured in space, the miracle of how the Menorah came out of the fire formed by Hashem, and so on. I told him that perhaps at some point in his life we can look at the Zohar and Chassidus to learn more about the numbers, but for a beginner seeking to understand Torah, let’s start with Chumash and Rashi and get the basic story down pat.

Yet, as Jews, we know that once we get past the basics there are many forms of Torah interpretation, primarily that of p’shat, remez, drush, and sod. Basically, we have four paths to Torah study: (1) P’shat is the simple, literal interpretation of the Torah. (2) Remez includes the different hints and allusions that are contained within the Torah, which includes gematria, which is garnered from the numerical value in each Hebrew letter. (3) Drush expounds upon the deeper meaning of the verse, and ideas that could be learned even if not based on the literal interpretation. (4) Sod (secret) is the esoteric, mystical part of Torah.

Just last week while I was learning the third chapter of Pirkei Avot with my daughter Chaya, we read the final statement in that chapter: “Rabbi Eliezer the son of Chisma would say: the laws of bird offerings and the laws of menstrual periods—these, these are the meat of halachah (Torah law). The calculations of solar seasons and gematria are the condiments of wisdom.” So, whether gematria here means geometry, as some explain, or the numerical value placed on letters of the Hebrew alef-beis, as others explain, the bottom line is that it’s an important study and is an added component to Torah learning. Sure, the complex laws of bird offerings and the complicated laws of niddah are foundational to living a Jewish life day-to-day, but so are the other layers of Torah study that help us be more soulful Jews. Is gematria as important as learning Rashi and Ramban to understand the basic verse? Perhaps not, but it’s certainly an important part of Torah understanding that is included in remez and should be a focus in the learning process somewhere in our journey of Torah growth.

This week’s Torah portion, Behar, begins with the words: “And the L-rd spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai, saying.” Rashi comments on the words “on Mount Sinai” that “just as with Shemittah, the laws of the Sabbatical year, its general principles and its finer details were all stated from Sinai; likewise, all of the mitzvos were stated—their general principles together with their finer details—from Sinai.”

Some think that only the Written Torah in the Five Books of Moses was given at Sinai, some think only the Written Torah and the Oral teaching of the Torah’s meaning was given at Sinai, others may think only the Ten Commandments were given at Sinai… it’s all incorrect. All of it—Written and Oral, exoteric and esoteric, homiletical and mystical, halachah and mussar—was included at Sinai, either directly or the principles that would later be used to bring about novel Torah teachings. Sinai was all-inclusive.

As we celebrate Lag B’Omer on Thursday, I am reminded of the incredible Bar Yochai song composed by the Spanish/Moroccan Rabbi Shimon Lavi. We dance around the fire, and we sing, “Bar Yochai … fortunate is the mother who bore you, fortunate is the nation that imbibes your teachings! And fortunate are those who grasp the secrets you revealed! They don the breastplate of your perfections and lights.”

Rashbi was all about revealing the sod of Torah, sharing a layer of Torah that today can be accessed through the study of Chassidus. We mustn’t miss out on such a vital aspect of Torah just because it may have not been part of our life when we were younger.

Case in point: the Rebbe mentioned that the word shliach in Hebrew is the numerical value of 348. When adding ten for the ten soul faculties of the shliach, recognizing his or her devotion to the shlichus of illuminating the world with the light of Torah, it equals 358, which is the numerical value of the Hebrew word Mashiach. The goal of the shliach is to bring Mashiach, and it’s clear in the combination of Hebrew letters that make up the word itself.

Let us resolve this Lag B’Omer to open our minds to all the holy facets of Torah learning. If you’re doing well in p’shat and drush, perhaps focus on sod and remez; if you’re all into remez and sod, obsessed with Chassidus and gematria, perhaps resolve to learn halachah and a blatt Gemara. Let’s see Torah for the all-encompassing wisdom of Hashem that it is, and not wait for a gentile to remind us of that.

Rabbi Chaim Bruk is co-CEO of Chabad Lubavitch of Montana and spiritual leader of The Shul of Bozeman. For comments or to partner in our holy work, e-mail rabbi@jewishmontana.com or visit JewishMontana.com/Donate.

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